Panleukopenia is a parvovirus very similar in structure to canine parvovirus. It is highly contagious and extremely resistant to disinfectants and temperature extremes. Strains of the virus can infect not only domestic cats but also all other members of the feline family as well as raccoons and minks.
Transmission of the panleukopenia virus occurs either through direct contact between cats or through contact with “fomites,” common surfaces where the bug can survive for a year or more. Litter boxes, food bowls, cages, and hands are all fomites, and infected cats can shed the virus through vomit, feces, and other bodily secretions. Proper scrubbing and disinfection can help ensure that the virus will not be passed on to other cats through contaminated items.
The panleukopenia virus attacks and destroys white blood cells, weakening the immune system and putting the cat at great risk of contracting secondary infections. Rapidly dividing cells in the gastrointestinal tract, lymphoid tissues, and cerebellum can also succumb to the virus. While some cats die suddenly without showing any signs of the disease, others suffer severe symptoms, including fever, fluctuating temperatures, depression, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. Lethargy is a big warning sign, and infected cats often droop their heads over their water bowls, thirsty but unable to drink.
Kittens aged three to five months are the most susceptible to the panleukopenia virus, although it can strike cats at any age. Generally, adult cats are more resistant, having either received vaccinations or developed their own immunity through exposure to the virus in the natural environment.
Treatment is restricted to supportive therapy in the form of antibiotics, fluids, and sometimes even blood transfusions. Isolation of infected animals during treatment is critical; otherwise, they could contaminate the general environment, putting other animals at risk of contracting the disease.
In diagnosing panleukopenia, veterinarians look for symptoms of the disease and a low white blood cell count. It’s also possible to detect the virus in a cat’s feces; kits are available for fecal testing.
Cats that survive an infection develop immunity that likely protects them for the rest of their lives. Mild cases that go unnoticed will also produce immunity from future infection.
It is also possible for kittens to receive temporary immunity through the transfer of antibodies in the colostrum — the first milk produced by the mother. This is called “passive immunity,” and how long it protects the kittens from infection depends upon the levels of protective antibodies produced by the mother. It rarely lasts longer than 12 weeks.
Prevention is vital to your cat’s health. Today, there are vaccines that offer the best protection from feline parvovirus infection. Vaccination is equally important for strictly indoor cats as well as indoor/outdoor cats because the virus is everywhere in the environment. Most young kittens receive their first vaccination between six and eight weeks of age and follow-up vaccines are given until the kitten is around 16 weeks of age. Adult vaccination schedules vary with the age and health of the cat, as well as the risk of FP in the area. Consult your veterinarian for advice on an appropriate vaccination schedule for your cat(s).
The Humane Rescue Alliance hosts low-cost vaccine clinics multiple times each week, including Saturdays.
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